Movie Review - 'Warlords' - In 19th-Century China, Brotherhood And Betrayal Three fighters swear a blood-brothers oath — and find it tested — in the midst of the Taiping Rebellion in 1860s China. Critic Mark Jenkins says Warlords strikes a compelling balance between epic battles and a substantive emotional storyline. (Recommended)
NPR logo In 19th-Century China, Brotherhood And Betrayal



In 19th-Century China, Brotherhood And Betrayal

Blood Brothers: Jet Li (center) plays General Pang, who joins forces with bandit leaders (Andy Lau, left, and Takeshi Kaneshiro) — only to soon find his new loyalties sorely tested. Magnet Releasing hide caption

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  • Director: Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Wai Man Yip
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 113 min
Rated R for sequences of strong violence.

With: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Xu Jinglei

Mandarin with English subtitles


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'The Oath'


With its thousands of years of bloody history — and tens of thousands of low-cost extras — China has long been a reliable source of battlefield epics. But The Warlords, a China/Hong Kong co-production, is more than just reliable. It's a surprisingly nuanced and sober tale of brotherhood and betrayal.

Fictionalized from historical events, the movie is set in the 1860s, during the Taiping Rebellion, an uprising led by a renegade who declared himself Jesus' younger brother. The Warlords doesn't glamorize this exceptionally destructive conflict, which eventually claimed an estimated 20 million lives; to the contrary, the film uses desaturated color to depict people gripped by hunger and weariness, their faces cracked by wind and caked with mud.

In the opening sequence, Taiping forces quickly rout a Qing Dynasty army. A single survivor remains on a field thick with corpses: General Pang (Jet Li). He loyally served the decadent Qings, only to see his troops abandoned by the army of General Ho, a Qing ally.

After the slaughter of his men, Pang meets a woman, Lian (Xu Jinglei), who nurses him back to health. (Most of the nursing happens off-camera and seems to involve sex.) Pang is soon cured of his injuries but is left with another wound: an enduring ache for Lian.

Making his way to a hillside bandit camp, Pang meets leaders Erhu (Andy Lau) and Jiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) — and learns that Lian is Erhu's wife. Erhu and Jiang's outlaws, who fight with swords and farming tools, are outmatched by the organized armies, which have rifles.

A Mixed Blessing: Xu Jinglei plays a stranger who takes General Pang into her home to nurse him — but later turns out to be a point of contention among him and his allies. Magnet Releasing hide caption

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Magnet Releasing

A Mixed Blessing: Xu Jinglei plays a stranger who takes General Pang into her home to nurse him — but later turns out to be a point of contention among him and his allies.

Magnet Releasing

Pang makes a pact of undying brotherhood with the bandit kings, selling them on an unlikely proposition: They and their men will join the Qing army, receiving food, weapons and glory — and help Pang conquer the Taiping strongholds of Suzhou and Nanjing. Brutal combat ensues, but the crucial developments occur off the battlefield: Pang must persuade the Qing war council to accept the outlaws as soldiers, and he must find a way to swallow his own rage and collaborate again with the Ho army.

Soon enough, Pang and Erhu clash over their conflicting codes of honor: The former prizes discipline and self-sacrifice, while the latter values tribal and personal ties. It's clear that after their campaign ends, a showdown between Pang and Erhu will be inevitable — but Jiang misunderstands the two men's conflict, thinking it's all about Lian, so he takes action to end the romantic rivalry, leading to a series of tragic resolutions.

The Warlords isn't principally a love story, but that element does give the movie unexpected emotional depth. Principal director Peter Ho-Sun Chan is known primarily for romances — he even made one for Hollywood, The Love Letter — and this movie can be seen as a distant cousin of one of Chan's best tales of unrequited passion, Comrades, Almost a Love Story.

Love doesn't always transcend, and neither does victory; after 10 years of war, the distinction between winning and losing begins to blur. Jet Li fans may be surprised to see their hero here looking weathered and, frankly, old. The final scene does offer the actor a showcase for his kung fu skills, but his grim, largely internalized determination is more important to the movie's success than any chops or kicks. The Warlords doesn't make fighting look graceful, easy or fun — and that's a mark of its courage. (Recommended)